Transcending Boundaries 2014 Keynote Address ‘Inclusion Is Not A Moonshot’

Below you’ll find my keynote address from Transcending Boundaries Conference 2014. The recording of the address didn’t work out, so I re-recorded it from my office. The text has been slightly modified to better suit print. 



Before I get going with the body of today’s address, I’d like to do a little exercise to help us look at how we think about inclusion in our community. And please, for the love of all that is decent in the world, don’t try to read too much into the order as I go, sometimes a list is just a list. Here are some common generalizations people have about people in the queer and LGBT community:

  • Bi people are often perceived as not “really” part of our community since there’s a perception that they can could always be with someone of the opposite sex
  • Cis gay men are seen as having so many societal advantages as to no longer be subjects of oppression and bigotry.
  • Lesbian and gay women are expected to cleave to hetero-normative gender expressions in their relationships, in the form of having a mandatory butch and fem partner
  • Trans* people are often portrayed as having one universal narrative of what it means to be transgender transsexual, or genderqueer.
  • Queer people are associated with being young and college educated.
  • Asexual people are all too often assumed to be simply inexperienced or afraid of sex
  • People make all sorts of presumptions about intersex people’s bodies
  • Polyamorous people are thought to be impulsive, flighty, or incapable of commitment.
  • People who engage in kink or BDSM practices are seen as unhealthy, prone to abuse, or inherently misogynistic.
  • When it comes to “questioning” people, there’s the belief that the “question” will always resolve in one of the preceding categories.
  • And of course, there’s a widespread belief that allies must have family or friends who are queer/LGBT or secretly have queer/LGBT leanings of their own.

OK, now here’s the question I want you to ask yourself: how closely did you pay attention to the points on that list that weren’t directly applicable to your life? Did you really listen to the others, or were you too caught up in waiting to hear what I was going to say about the demographic or issue closest to your own personal experience?

If you’re really being honest with yourself, did you pretty much just look for your piece of the pie?

Or do you really feel like you took in the whole list.

On that note, did you weigh the relative severity of each of the scenarios listed to see who I was putting forth as having things the worst or best?

It’s not fun to think about is it? It’s easy to find ourselves feeling terribly defensive in moments like these. Furthering the conversation around inclusion is incredibly important, especially now, when the future of our community is more uncertain than ever, but you can already see why it’s a conversation we really struggle to have.

Speaking of: I was asked to give this address fourteen months ago, and it has absolutely kicked my ass that whole time.

A big part of that is that I haven’t been able to escape the idea that maybe it’s just not appropriate for me to give this keynote. I love TBC, and I was immensely honored to be asked. But the truth is, having a cisgender white guy talk about inclusion at a queer conference just doesn’t seem like the best idea.

There’s no escaping the fact that by virtue of my being a cis white guy, I am perceived by many people in this room as an embodiment of an oppressive system that robs people of power and agency. And I’ve struggled in crafting it, given that I’m coming from an undeniable place of privilege, to address people who struggle against forces of disempowerment driven by the very privileges I carry through life.

After all, I found myself asking, what was there for me to say?

That as a broad community queer/LGBTQ people kinda suck at inclusion? I’m pretty sure most of you already know that. And over the last year of work on this topic I’ve thought about many ways to say it, so some of what I will have to say is about us, and some of it is about me.

I actually wrote a version of this address with as little of myself in it as possible. Objectively, it wasn’t a bad keynote, but it wasn’t the right one for me to give. I’m not a speechwriter, I’m a storyteller and an educator. Inclusion, as we’ll see is not a moonshot, and I’m not JFK, and both of those things are just going to have to be OK, because that’s what we’ve got to work with.

Speaking of JFK, I’m both a science and a history nerd so I was aware of Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in September of 1962. You may never have heard of the Rice University speech, but I’m sure you’ve heard this part of it:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard

Think about this: less than three months earlier John Glenn had become the first American to complete an orbit our planet, and here the President was giving the nation little over seven years to set foot on another world. America’s “moonshot” was monumental task that we’d pledged ourselves to.

The following decade saw a series of clear milestones laid out and achieved as we raced to go from from cramming someone into the nosecone of a ballistic missile to traveling to the moon. And on July 24th 1969, Apollo 11 returned to earth carrying the first humans to have set foot on celestial body.

The moment Apollo 11 splashed down in the ocean, everyone who would follow after in the pursuit of a goal were pretty screwed. President Kennedy and the people behind the space program had created impossibly big shoes to fill, and from there on out we’ve been trying to. After all, how many times have we heard “how is it that we can put a man on the moon but not… whatever?”

You’re probably wondering what the point of that little history lesson was.

You see, one side effect of stressing out about this address, was that ideas about inclusion would pop into my head at random times. For me, random times pretty much meant in the shower or falling asleep. I have significant OCD, and became somewhat obsessed with the idea that the perfect thought would occur to me, and I’d forget it. So I got a waterproof case for my phone for the shower-driven ideas, and kept a notepad by my bed. “Inclusion is not a moonshot” was one of the more puzzling thoughts my fatigue addled brain put out there at four AM. But for some reason, I found myself unable to dismiss it come morning. The process of trying to figure it out helped shape my understanding of how we as a community all too often fall short when it comes to inclusion.

Before I was a sex and kink educator, or an LGBT activist for that matter, I was a product designer. The methodological approach to problem solving that got us to the moon makes sense to that part of my brain. Identify a problem, break it down into manageable chunks, complete steps A to Z, and voila, you’ve landed on the moon. It’s a good way to address many problems, and it’s useful for everything from interplanetary travel to grocery shopping.

What it isn’t good at is dealing with soft, squishy, human problems. The moonshot model can’t describe love, or how to create art, and when push comes to shove, it doesn’t do very well when it comes to building community either.

And we really try.

When it comes to being inclusive, we persistently follow a top-down, systematic approach to being better at this whole thing. It does a pretty awesome job of making privileged people feel less guilty about their privilege, but that’s about it.

This is the way of thinking that says “if we put a trans* person on our board then we’re inclusive” or “it’s not our fault that people of color just aren’t interested in our community” or to be personal for a moment “we’ve never had a cis guy give one of our keynotes and figured it was time.” The underlying idea is that leadership decisions can effectively bring about organic change to a whole community or demographic, and on the balance it just doesn’t work.

I’m not trying to say that way of doing things never leads to positive outcomes, it absolutely does, and it sure beats the living hell out of not doing anything at all. But when change comes, it does so because of the strength and determination of a few dedicated individuals who carve out a place for themselves and hold space for more people like them.

I have the utmost respect for those folks, but I also feel sorry for them. Down that road lies burnout and bitterness for too many, and even more tragically, it’s not unheard of for the departure of one or two critical people in a community to render it no longer as comfortable or safe for the those they were holding space for. In time those people drift away, rendering all the hard work that went into giving them a voice or a place in the community for naught.

Screw all of that, we can to do better.

We hear a lot of talk about the queer/LGBT community. Now, this could be my own creeping burnout talking, but I think many of us know that if anything, on a national level there’s a queer/LGBT coalition, or perhaps a demographic, but as a community we often bare more resemblance to the Donner Party than the Brady Bunch.

And there’s a really good reason for that. We are trapped in a scarcity environment that rewards ruthlessness and strife between our various facets and factions. There is, after all only so much in the way of resources to go around: Only so much money to spend on lobbyists and petition drives; only so many minutes of airtime we can capture out of the media landscape; only so many column inches online and in print that will be devoted to our causes and concerns. So what happens? We find ourselves caught in an ongoing Pyrrhic multi-front conflict, where before we can take our fight for equality to the streets, courthouses, and classrooms of the outside world, we first have to “overcome” our LGTBQ siblings, trampling them down in order to claim a share of the activism pie for ourselves.

I’m a gay cis guy, we know all about trampling everyone else in order to advance a message that benefits us.

This scarcity paradigm in which our whole movement operates leads to one of the largest issues when it comes to inclusion: on some level many of us just aren’t interested. All too often, inclusion is seen as a noble cause, worthy of working towards, you know, as long as we’re the one’s whostay on or near the top.

I don’t want to imply that this is purely a function of the scarcity paradigm though. Humans tends to be tribal by our nature, just look at the intense discord we see between users of different computer platforms or fans of different sports franchises.

Because of this tendency, the very act of thinking about inclusivity puts our tribal selves on the defensive. Just by talking about expanding our definitions of a group or community to include someone else, we define them as an “other.” They are not-like-me, not part of my tribe, and thus are alien. So as we look to be more inclusive, we often start out from a place of resistance to the whole idea.

So, what does inclusion look like for us these days?

Well, one elephant in the room whenever we try to talk about inclusion has to be the so-called “oppression olympics.” We just love ranking our experiences of oppression and discrimination, and take a perverse pride in coming out on the bottom. Of course that’s easy for me to say, by the accepted standards of the queer/LGBT community, I’m on the top of the oppression dynamic, and obviously that’s going to shape my perceptions in potentially problematic ways.

Like the subject of privilege as a whole, which we’ll look at later when our focus turns towards solutions rather than problems, this practice can be useful as a tool for expanding compassion and understanding of other people’s experiences, and for building a more complete picture of the differences between how various members of our community move through the world.

So on the surface, the whole ranking thing doesn’t seem like such a bad idea: people who are living under a heightened state of inequality are often overlooked and underrepresented, when they perhaps need the support of the community the most. This perspective can help focus attention on the people who are particularly weighed down by societal burdens.

There are two problems I see with this strategy. The first and most critical is that it doesn’t get the attention and energy of the broader community working to address issues of inequality until the situation is already dire. In a sense, this creates a dynamic where before we can begin working to make things better, we first have to utterly fail in our responsibility as a community to some of our most vulnerable members.

The flip side of that is that there are plenty of people within the LGBTQ umbrella who exist as part of sub-groups rightfully seen as more privileged, but who nonetheless themselves struggle with serious issues of inequality that are overlooked or disregarded due to their higher place in the oppression/privilege power-dynamic, at least according to the somewhat narrow band of criteria employed by the queer/LGBT community.

In both these ways the “oppression olympics” are the dark antithesis of empathy.

Story time: around my third year in college, the symptoms of my Tourette, which had been in a waning period since my junior year of high school, took an upswing and became far more noticeable, which is about the most understated way to say I went from not-barking-like-a-dog to barking like a dog.

I predictably had issues on campus, and after some back and forth with the administration, a copy of a letter I wrote explaining about the TS was sent out to the community. What followed was a rush of emails from other students sharing their own personal issues, be them around disability or other topics they didn’t feel comfortable sharing with most people, but felt they could share with me. There was none of the familiar competition in their messages, no rankings or judgments. Just a sharing of experiences and solidarity.

I’ve spent a good bit of time wondering why we sometimes exhibit that kind of empathy, but under other circumstances, find ourselves embroiled in the destructive oppression olympics dynamic. Here’s my best thought:

First and foremost, I really do believe that this is another facet of the scarcity dynamic afflicting our community. For another, almost no one who contacted me in that story had Tourette. And that’s really significant in my mind.

Because maybe our biggest obstacle to being able to create more inclusive queer community is that we are just too damned alike!

Oh don’t get me wrong, I imagine almost any of us here today could expound in great detail about all the ways that gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans*, queer, asexual, intersex, and allied people have very different lives and experiences from each other. But when we do that, we’re finding micro scale differences most perceptible to those of us immersed in this world. On a macro level our similarities, experiences, and shared history vastly outweigh our differences. And that’s where we run into trouble.

One of my clan brothers has a t-shirt that says “doing queer all wrong.” It’s only funny because it’s true.

For example, I’m a gay guy, but that’s not anywhere near enough commonality to be accepted by other gay guys. Despite the fact that on the macro level we all feel emotional and often sexual attractions to other guys, much of how the gay mens’ world works is on a far more microcosmic level, especially among younger gay men, lacking the sense of solidarity experienced by older generations, who shared the twin common enemies of social oppression and the plague of HIV.

And so it is that the “masc” gay-bros want nothing to do with guys who don’t measure up to their masculinity standards, with their show-tunes and limp wrists. Those guys in turn see the gay-bros as full of internalized homophobia. Both factions insist the other is an obstacle to societal acceptance by the way. That doesn’t even start to get into the pervasive racism, classicism, or agism found within the gay mens’ world.

There are of course, similar stories within every facet of the queer/LGBT demographic, from questions of who gets to use the term asexual, to who’s trans* enough, or how equal bisexual people’s attractions “should” be, whether butches or fems are “better” at being lesbians, what role chromosomes vs physical characteristics play in identifying someone as intersex, just what does “queer” mean, what counts as a “relationships” in gender, sexual, and relationship/romantic minorities? The list goes on and on, but what they all share in common is that we are experiencing serious conflict about issues that if we’re to be honest, are quite specific.

It’s a phenomena found outside of this community too. My religious demographic is a small and often overlooked one that nonetheless deals with exactly the same issue. I’ve seen arguments over something as small and personal as the way a sacred offering is made devolve into the sorts of vitriol and hyperbole usually found only amongst the sort enmity that leads to troops landing on the beaches of Normandy.

Perhaps in the case of queer/LGBT people this issue yet again ties back in part again to the scarcity environment topic. The person who is enough like you can make use of resources that could otherwise be used for your own ends after all.

But I think that’s only a piece of the picture. When it comes to other people, we want there to be those who are like me and those who are not. But in between those two states lies an uncanny valley of people who through subtle differences are not of our particular tribe, and yet are close enough to be confused with us by outsiders blind to the details that stand out stark in our minds.

And we just hate that.

I know I’ve been a bit of a downer so far, but I want to make sure to cover one more vitally important issue on the subject of us sucking at inclusion:

Here’s a hard truth the queer/LGBT community and political movement often ignore: we are also no more immune to the insidious forces of ableism, sexism, racism, classicism, ageism, and other problematic ways we dismiss the experiences and identities of other people, than any other population. As a movement we are certainly guilty of all of those things,. Queer/LGBT activism has an unfortunate but deserved reputation for presenting us to the world as young, vibrant, healthy, white people of considerable means and wholesome values.

The harsh reality check is: that in America, that highly mediapathic image of who we are has been a useful tool in advancing an agenda up to a point. On the other hand, the use of that image has created a power dynamic within the community where people who don’t fit the mold are seen as less valuable and even as a “threat” to the advancement of the community, and thus best ignored or disavowed.

But this is an issue on a personal level too, and it’s very easy to fall into the trap of believing that we are somehow more enlightened by virtue of being part of the our community. Of course, queer/LGBTQ people are not magically somehow immune to having ignorant or bigoted biases of our own, but it’s always surprising to bump into it, especially in ourselves. I’ve met LGBTQ people who hold biases on the basis race, religion and lack thereof, gender, sexual orientation, disability, class, education, etc. And yes, I’ve met people who fit those descriptions in person, not just on the web.

The point is that we can’t let ourselves or our peers use our queer/LGBT identities as cover for bigotry, directed within our community or not.

OK, I’ve stood up here and made my case for us being kinda crappy at inclusion. As I said at the start, that’s the easy part, because on some level many of you were already on board with my premise.

Now what?

Well, if inclusion isn’t a moonshot, that is to say our top down approach isn’t getting the job done, what does that leave?

Let’s start with the the topic of privilege, which has become an incredibly loaded word, from all sides of the discussion. There are people who feel strongly that everything can and should be discussed in terms of privilege, and people who would be totally content never hearing the word again, ever.

The path forward lies in the middle. The discussion of privilege and recognition of privilege can be an incredible tool for enhancing empathy and compassion between people. The fact is privilege is very real. It’s a thing, and the privileges that we carry, as well as the privileges that we don’t carry, undeniably impact how we move through the world and how we create community. Where we run into problems with discussions around privilege, is when it becomes the go-to solution for shutting down or disregarding people and perspectives we disagree with, what my husband calls “the stick our community uses to silence dissent.”

We can’t let ourselves do that. Discussion of privilege should open conversations and expand understanding, and that’s just not how we always use it. When privilege becomes the means by which dialogs are ended, rather than begun, the deeply important conversations that need to be happening get lost in a cycle of anger and miscommunication.

As individuals, we can define our own privilege, and honestly we all have an obligation to do so. As we move through the world and interact with different people, we should be checking, recognizing, and expanding our understanding of our own privileged places in the world. And it’s vital to acknowledge everyone in this room has some forms of privilege that they carry with them. What we need it avoid though, is a dynamic wherein we’re defining that privilege for others.

Obviously you can look at me and say “that guy’s got white privilege” that’s true, I do.

Where we must draw the line is defining what an element of privilege means for someone else in their own experience of the world. We can’t look at someone and make a sweeping statement that because of their privilege they do or don’t experience X, Y, or Z.

I can only speak from my own experience, but I will admit that the way we interact with concepts of privilege in the queer/LGBT community can be challenging for me.

Patricia Hill Collins says that:

People experience and resist oppression on three levels: the level of personal biography; the group or community level of the cultural context created by race, class, and gender; and the systemic level of social institutions.

What I’ve found is that our community tends to gloss over the personal biography in favor of categorical and more easily quantifiable matters of privilege and oppression which are bound up in cultural context and social institutions.

My lived experience has been that there are elements of my own personal biography that counter many of the inherent advantages conveyed by the privileges with which I move through the world. There are a great many things that able-bodied, or even simply people who don’t have Tourette Syndrome take for granted, which are sources of disadvantage or oppression in my life.

Let me explain: my disability first became particularly severe in 1993, which means that it has been over twenty years since I was able to enter into a social situation without mentally assessing the people around me, attempting to determine who would be most like to become difficult or abusive towards to me, as well as who might be a potential ally if a problem occurs. I’ve been denied access to airplanes, restaurants, and other public spaces; I’ve learned to fear police officers and authority figures; strangers have felt justified in physically striking me.

Between my symptoms and the significant muscular-skeletal damage they have wrought, most jobs are off limits, either because having someone who barks like dog in a professional environment is sub-optimal, or because the jobs that are OK with the Tourette require levels of physical labor that my body can no longer tolerate.

I bring this up because my experience has been that nowhere are those forms of oppression I experience in daily life less recognized or acknowledged than in the queer/LGBT community.

Now, obviously my racial, gender, and class privileges have played a significant role in how I’ve learned to manage my disability. Would my journey thus far have been radically different if I was a person of color, trans, female, and/or poor? Of course, and that’s what I most often hear when this topic comes up. But it’s not really the point is it? My medical condition, particularly it’s level of social stigma, has an enormous, and generally overlooked impact how advantageous those privileges have proved to be. And the truth is that the same could be said for many people in our community.

This then comes back to that whole thing about people being messy, and squishy, and complicated. No one is defined by one singular characteristic, and we can’t know the totality of someone’s experience based on a set of social and cultural traits. It’s incredibly tempting, because as a species we like straightforward and clearly structured ways of looking at the world.

That is, after all, how we got to the moon.

Because of that, it’s not easy to step back. Sometimes we get sucked into a narrative about people and situations based in no small part on our own assumptions, and down that road lies heartbreak and strife.

You see, there are times when compassion and empathy can best grow from a place of distance.

You heard in my bio that I’m a sex and kink educator. I won’t go into details, particularly since my mom is here, but it’s safe to say that I am into all sorts of whacky kinky sex stuff.

The thing is, the kinds of whacky kinky sex stuff I’m personally into are not necessarily the same ones that friends, colleagues, and other people I meet in my travels enjoy. For the most part that doesn’t cause much sturm und drang within that community. Modern kink culture has developed a mantra of “your kink is not my kink and that’s OK.” And it works. As a way to bring together a whole bunch of people with different ideas, desires, and modes of expression and have them not hate each other it does a pretty good job.

It’s something that the queer/LGBT community needs to better integrate into our shared culture. We’ve got to make a concerted effort to separate our own experience and views, from that of other people. Perhaps the biggest step to really understanding someone else is to divest from their experience of the world, which is always going to be somewhat different from our own. This is most vitally important when our experiences are similar. Being able to maintain distance between ourselves and other people, particularly strangers, and above all else, those we meet on the web, is a vital skill to remaining emotionally healthy and functional in any community.

It comes back to my friend’s “doing queer all wrong” shirt, the reality is that there are people who care, and care deeply about how others experience and express themselves, particularly when it comes to shared and tangential identities. Being able to take a deep breath and say to yourself “I am not them, and their lives are not mine” can go a long way towards preventing discord.

A natural outgrowth of this is making a conscious effort to remember that people who identify as queer/LGBT exist independent of the stereotypes and accepted narratives prevalent in the media and national consciousness. It’s hard to remember that other people’s extend well beyond their sexual orientation and gender identity, particularly when those are traits that we share with them. But the thing is, there are absolutely no rules that say if you are queer you must live and think thusly.

So for example, a few months ago there was a prominent story in the LGBTQ media about a proposed bill in Arizona that would have made it easier for businesses to refuse service to queer and LGBT people, and sadly a very similar bill was signed into law yesterday in Mississippi. Many people within our community don’t really see this as an issue, and the sentiment that “I wouldn’t want to give my business to those people anyway” is a common one.

That is a very urban perspective, and there is a default assumption that queer/LGBT people are urban dwellers. But where is the empathy for the person who lives in a small town? Perhaps they lack transportation to get to go someplace else, the finances to relocate, or have familial ties that hold them there? What do they do when the only grocer or hardware store for miles refuses them?

The thing is, people aren’t unsympathetic to that situation when it’s brought to their attention. Rather, because it is so removed from their experience, and the public image of what it means to be part of the LGBTQ demographic, those restrictions would never cross their minds.

This sort of mental separation is hard, but it is central to the idea of inclusive community. The key to making it work is something at once incredibly simple and staggeringly difficult: we have to be better listeners.

I know that sounds like an empty platitude, ten cent wisdom for a hundred dollar problem. But remember what I said earlier about the uncanny valley effect when it comes to people who are quite similar to us, while still having some significant differences. Why we hate that so much comes down to the issue of confirmation bias.

When faced with a personal narrative passingly similar to our own, or those of people close to us, we automatically fill in details that aren’t there. When our assumptions run into reality, we get upset and defensive, a side effect of what social scientists call “belief perseverance.” Consciously or not, we don’t want to let go of the “truth” as we’ve now defined it, and hence take issue with people being wrong from our perspective, even if the topic under discussion is their own lives and experiences.

Because of this, we have to learn to be intentional listeners, not letting perceptions of either our similarities or our differences paint a picture built on assumptions, rather than understandings. And one of the key tools for building a model for intentional communication is going to be our language. How we speak to, and about one another can play a big role in creating a paradigm of inclusivity.

We in the queer/LGBT community love to talk about and make assumptions about other people’s identities or experiences. I touched on this in the discussion about privilege, but it’s worth revisiting.

There is nothing more central to the experience of LGBTQ identity than the right to self-determination in terms of who we are, how we live, and how we love. Yet we are forever attempting to impose our own judgments on who people are, or should be. We all need to learn to listen and strive to understand other people’s personal journeys. That starts with not presuming that you have shared language. Words are incredibly slippery things, and no more so than when talking about identity.

Time for another brief story:

For a long time, I self identified as “queer,” and there were a lot of reason for that that I don’t need to go into right now.

But over time it became clear that in the communities and circles I traveled in, there was an unspoken understanding that “queer” as an identity was generally inclusive only of cis women and trans* folk. No one ever said to me “you can’t be queer,” but my identity was a source of confusion and conflict for other queer people I encountered.

For instance, there was an issue when I was invited to a queer sex party by a close friend, only to have him come back and explain that the party host thought it was understood that as a “queer” party it would not be a space open to cis guys. On other occasions people made incorrect assumptions about my gender identity based on my queer identity, and this led to some ugly exchanges and hurt feelings all around. Eventually I evaluated the words and norms of my community and dropped “queer” as part of my public presentation.

I’m not trying to say that cis men can’t be queer by the way, because that’s totally not my place. But I feel like the story is a useful one, because it cuts to the truth that people can mean and understand things differently even when they are saying the same words.

I know it’s ponderous to ask people to define every term in every conversation, and I’m not going to suggest it. All I ask instead is that we make the effort to put aside our assumptions as we interact with people, and be willing to ask when it starts to sound like our understandings and someone else’s may not be entirely convergent. This isn’t just about avoiding one type of miscommunication, but also that the exercise of being careful, helps force us to be better listeners.

You know that writing this address gave me no small amount of trouble, and perhaps nothing was more troubling than what exactly I should call us today. I’ve been standing here talking about inclusion, and yet I’m using the term queer/LGBT and LGBTQ as shorthand for our community, which is clearly problematic.

I did entertain the thought of saying LGBTQQIA every time I wanted to refer to us, but it’s a mouthful and I’m just not a good enough speaker to get it to flow. I also considered QUILTBAG, but I have my own issues with that particular designation. I’m personally a fan of GSM or GSRM for Gender & Sexual Minorities or Gender, Sexual, & Relationship/Romantic Minorities, but they aren’t terms in widespread usage, and there is much discussion, debate, and disagreement about them encouraging erasure and/or being quote-unquote “overly inclusive.”

I bring this up because how we identify our community as well as ourselves is dreadfully important, and we’ve never really found a good way to do it. Using an acronym is loaded with issues, from letter order, to the fact that we can never do so in an inclusive way. Whatever acronym we choose at any time, with the possible exception of GSM/GSRM, we are inherently defining ourselves as an exclusionary community. We are saying “these are the people who are of us” and it leaves everyone else out in the cold.

There was one other late-night note that stuck with me, and it was this: the rainbow flag is a lie.

The rainbow pride flag traditionally has six bars of color across it, with clean lines of demarcation at each color’s borders. Could there be a more misleading representation of who we are?

One of the most challenging and stunningly beautiful things about who we’ve become over the last couple of decades is our embracing of the fluid and incredibly nuanced ways people experience sexuality and gender. We need to make sure our language and imagery reflect our infinite diversity, rather than clinging to outmoded, narrow bands of identity.

So then, what can we take away from this whole conversation about what it means to be inclusive? It’s simple: we can’t set out to build inclusive community. It just can’t be done, inclusion cannot be forced. Instead, what we can and I fully believe we must do, is change how we interact with others and with ourselves. Every one of us has to make the choice to become inclusive people. We have to acknowledge that it’s hard work, and sometimes it’s scary, but we owe it to ourselves and our siblings.

Because this is a strange time for the our community. We are making legal and social progress across the board in the US at an unprecedented rate, although unfortunately some of us are still farther ahead than others. This progress means that over the course of the the next decade we must work to build a new understanding of who we are as a people rather than as a movement.

Here’s why: there are no major milestones or elements of cultural significance in the queer community that weren’t driven or sparked by the catalyst of outside oppression. For the overwhelming majority of our history we have defined ourselves by who and what we are not. The shape of our collective identity has been forged in the fires of discrimination and the struggle for equality. There really wasn’t any other choice. And for the most part as we’ve learned to fight those fights, we’ve won more than we’ve lost. Along the way we built our movement and community into a purpose-driven engine of change, with the single-minded focus on claiming our equal place in the laws and culture of the modern world.

But the reality is that tools created for battle are ill-suited to peacetime life.

We have every right to be proud of what we’ve achieved in less than half a century, although that pride has to be tempered by the knowledge that for many of our most vulnerable, there’s still a long way to go. But the flip side of that pride is that I don’t think we have any cohesive ideas of what our community would look like without a clear-cut oppressor to define ourselves against. Right now we’re so fractured, and one might even say fratricidal, that our shared sense of identity could shatter like spun glass, which I believe would be a tragedy beyond measure.

The only way we can move forward on this exciting and terrifying journey of figuring out who we are, and who we will be is by ensuring that we all have a voice and place in the conversation. And the clock is ticking. But there are no checklists, no road-maps, no grand plan that will get us from A to Z. Inclusion is not a moon shot.


Instead, inclusion is a way of life, a state of mind built on a bedrock of empathy and compassion, tempered with honest self examination and a real assessment of our places in the world.

The top-down moon-shot model of inclusive community is so very tempting, because it can get most of us sitting at the same table, but in a way that does more to make some of us feel good than it does to make sure everyone has a voice. But even if that model could get EVERYONE to the table, it’s never going to make us a family.

And we don’t deserve to be anything less.

I called this keynote “Inclusion Is Not A Moonshot” and for the most part, it isn’t. Except to say that in our journey forward in building an inclusive and lasting community we would do well to accept that the challenge is, to again quote President Kennedy at Rice University:

one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win

Thank you.


2 thoughts on “Transcending Boundaries 2014 Keynote Address ‘Inclusion Is Not A Moonshot’

  1. Just wanted to say that I enjoyed this speech at TBC, and I’m thinking about and discussing the points you made with others; it’s been very productive. I’ve been struck, particularly, at how almost everything you said can be equally applied to the Pagan movement. The patterns you’re recognizing can be found in many leftist subcultures, I suspect.

    Thanks again.

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